Percy Monkman, (1892 – 1986), was a prolific watercolour artist who painted predominantly Dales and Pennine landscapes, especially Wharfedale and the Bronte country, and also urban scenes around Bradford. He also painted in oils and gouache.
Percy was born and lived in Bradford until he retired in 1952, aged 60. He then moved to Baildon, five miles away on the edge of the moors, where he lived for another 34 years.
On his 17th birthday in 1909 he joined Becketts Bank and worked there until the First Word War. This gave him financial security, but his real talents lay elsewhere.
Percy first became a local celebrity – not as an artist – but as an entertainer. Joining the army in 1915 as a stretcher bearer in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), he soon volunteered to join an entertainment troupe as a comedian and spent the rest of the First World War entertaining soldiers night after night in the Somme.
Whilst waiting to be demobbed in 1919 he began to draw scenes around Cambrai, later to feature as the first of many pictures he exhibited at Bradford’s main art gallery, Cartwright Hall.
After the war Percy returned to a career in banking in Bradford and Becketts Bank merged to become the Westminster Bank. He continued to participate in entertainments in evenings and at weekends. He gradually also developed his interest in painting, taking evening lessons at the Bradford College of Art. At the same time he published sporting cartoons in the local press.
In the 1930s his part-time career as an entertainer developed into an acting career at the Bradford Civic Playhouse where he appeared in 27 productions, often plays written by his boyhood friend JB Priestley (also the theatre’s president for some 50 years). During this period it became one of the best amateur theatres in the country, nurturing famous actors, such as Billie Whitelaw and Bernard Hepton.
The highlight of Percy’s acting career was playing the part of Herbert Soppitt, hen-pecked husband of one of the three couples celebrating their silver wedding in Priestley’s play, When We Are Married. This was probably the most successful theatre production in Bradford in the 20th century. Percy played in all 66 performances in five revivals spread over 20 years.
During the 1930s, also, Percy started to exhibit paintings more widely than Bradford and he won first prize for paintings four years in a row in national competitions run by Westminster Bank. He also became a prominent art contributor to the Dalesman magazine for the rest of his life after it was launched in 1939.
After he retired, Percy was able to devote almost all his time to painting. He exhibited widely across Yorkshire and frequently at the Royal Institute of Water Colour Painters (RI) shows in London.
The ‘Forster Square’ painting (shown above) was one of his best-known artworks of the centre of Bradford – a now unrecognisable scene after major redevelopment in the 1950s, 1960s, and more recently. It was the view from his window in the bank opposite the Midland Hotel.
Percy was a member of Bradford Arts Club from 1924 for over 60 years until his death. He was chairman for 13 years before becoming in 1977 the club’s president for a further three years. He was also prominent in Yorkshire art circles, in groups such as the Yorkshire Group of Artists that thrived in the 1930s and, some 50 years later, the Yorkshire Watercolour Society, created in 1980 under the leadership of Ashley Jackson.
Percy’s work regularly appears at auction and is popular with local and other collectors; he sold over 1,400 of his artworks in his lifetime. It is characterised by its attention to detail and subtle use of colour.
His daughter, Dorothy Greenwood, photographed above, was also a prolific artist and both his and his daughter’s work was shown regularly at local art shows.
A book about the life and work of Percy Monkman was published in 2017 by Martin Greenwood, grandson of the artist: Percy Monkman: An Extraordinary Bradfordian. Published by PlashMill Press. ISBN 10: 0957261292; ISBN 13: 978-0957261297. Can be ordered via online sites or your local bookseller.
See also:Percy Monkman: My Art
(I am grateful to Martin Greenwood for his help in preparing this profile of his grand-father, Percy Monkman.)